A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: A poet leads his nation into war

For nine months, Italy had kept clear of the carnage. Then dissolute, charismatic Gabriele D’Annunzio intervened

The Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio was an ugly, spindly, bald little man who had fled Italy in a hurry when his extravagance drove him to bankruptcy. In May 1915, he was back, playing a new role, as the saviour of the nation.

Italy had stayed out of the Great War, now in its ninth month. The country had been tied by treaty into an alliance with Germany and Austria, but Rome was not consulted before Austria declared war on Serbia,  so the government decided it was not bound to join the Central Powers.

Besides, there was nothing Italy wanted that it could gain at the expense of Austria’s enemies. But within the Austrian empire, near Italy’s northern border and along the eastern Adriatic coast, were towns with big Italian communities which revanchists like D’Annunzio believed should be in a greater Italy.

His intervention mattered because public opinion was volatile and D’Annunzio was Italy’s leading poet, a charismatic speaker and an effective rabble-rouser. He was, as his biographer Lucy Hughes-Hallett demonstrates, an extreme example of a repugnant personality and a great artistic talent residing in the same person.

He knew the terrible cost of war. In Paris, he had been in contact with Peppino Garibaldi, grandson of the founder of modern Italy, who had raised a legion of Italian volunteers to fight alongside the French. One quarter were already dead. No matter. D’Annunzio had a headful of Nietzschean ideas of supermen and the will to power, of virility and nationhood, and was transfixed by the idea that Italy must put itself through this rite of passage to earn respect as a nation.


On 13 May 1915, he chatted pleasantly in his hotel room with two acquaintances, one a sculptor, the other an aristocrat whose wife was on D’Annunzio’s long list of sexual conquests. Outside, an excited crowd was clamouring to hear the poet and prophet of war. He had been back in Italy for less than 10 days, and had arrived in Rome only the previous night. As the agreeable conversation wound down, D’Annunzio stepped out on to the adjoining balcony and delivered what amounted to an incitement to riot and murder.

“Comrades, it is no longer time for speaking but for doing,” he declaimed. “No longer time for orations, but for actions, Roman actions. If it is considered a crime to incite the citizenry to violence, I glory in that crime, I take it upon myself alone…Every excess of force is allowable, if it avails to prevent the loss of our Fatherland. You have to prevent a handful of pimps and swindlers from sullying and losing Italy.”

The crowd roared its agreement. The next day, a riot broke out in the centre of Rome. The parliament building was invaded, and furniture smashed. Troops were called out to guard the Austrian embassy.  Ten days later, on 24 May, Italy went to war.

In D’Annunzio’s mind, he was the voice of a vigorous, uncorrupted Italy railing against a corrupt ruling elite. Actually, he was helping to settle a power struggle between rival factions of Italy’s ruling class, and helping to thwart the will of parliament.

The faction that wanted Italy to enter the war was small but active. Its most famous convert was the journalist Benito Mussolini, who was editor of the socialist newspaper Avanti! when war began, and wrote editorials warning that to take Italy into the conflict would be “an unpardonable crime”. By October 1914, he had changed his mind. He resigned from Avanti! and took just two weeks to launch his own French-backed, pro-war daily newspaper, Il Popolo d’Italia. His old comrades promptly expelled him from the Italian Socialist Party.

Secretly, Antonio Salandra, Italy’s Prime Minister since March 1914, and the Foreign Minister, Sidney Sonnino, were also of the war party, having calculated that Germany and Austria were heading for an early defeat and that it would be in Italy’s interest to be on the winning side. The previous month, they had secretly signed a treaty in London, committing Italy to enter the war.

Their problem was how to get their decision past the Italian parliament, which was controlled by a shrewd and seasoned statesman named Giovanni Giolitti. Over 70 years old, he had served four times as Prime Minister and had dominated Italian politics since the turn of the century. Giolitti thought Italy’s army was not up to fighting a modern war, and calculated that there was more to be gained from staying neutral. He carried a clear majority every time he spoke.

To thwart parliament, the government needed the street disturbances. Hugh Dalton, Britain’s future Chancellor of the Exchequer, was in Rome and noted how “hundreds of thousands of good people of all classes were walking through the streets of Rome and other Italian cities, intoning with a slow and interminable repetition, ‘Death to Giolitti, Death to Giolitti!’”

On 13 May, the day that D’Annunzio delivered his inflammatory speech, Salandra handed in his resignation to the King, who sent for Giolitti to form a new administration. The old man’s life was under threat. His house was under guard. More importantly, he did not believe it would be possible to break the secret London treaty, and did not want to be the prime minister who took the country to war. He declined. The King had no choice but to recall a much-strengthened Salandra.

Italy suffered nearly 2.2 million casualties in the war that followed – 650,000 dead, 947,000 wounded and 600,000 taken prisoner or missing in action. During a catastrophic defeat at Caporetto, in 1917, the Italians showed so little stomach for a fight that 265,000 were taken prisoner, and about 400,000 vanished, in most cases because they fled the battlefield and sloped off home.

After the war, Italy gained some territory, including Trieste and South Tyrol, which it might have gained anyway had it stayed neutral, while all the Italian-inhabited ports on the east Adriatic were allocated to the newly created kingdom of Yugoslavia. The humiliation at Caporetto and the belief that Italy’s reward for its sacrifices was what D’Annunzio called a “mutilated peace” created the conditions that left the road to Rome open for Mussolini. He hailed D’Annunzio as the John the Baptist of fascism. The poet, who ended his days in empty luxury, watched by Fascist spies, thought that description was an insult.

Earlier ‘moments’ in the series can be seen at  independent.co.uk/greatwar

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Life and Style
A still from a scene cut from The Interview showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's death.
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
Arts and Entertainment
Bianca Miller and Katie Bulmer-Cooke are scrutinised by Lord Sugar's aide Nick Hewer on The Apprentice final
tvBut Bianca Miller has taken on board his comments over pricing
in picturesWounded and mangy husky puppy rescued from dump
newsAstonishing moment a kangaroo takes down a drone
Life and Style
Duchess of Cambridge standswith officials outside of the former wartime spy centre in Bletchley Park
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Planner

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance...

The Jenrick Group: World Wide PLC Service Engineer

£30000 - £38000 per annum + pesion + holidays: The Jenrick Group: World Wide S...

The Jenrick Group: Project Manager

£35000 per annum + Pension+Bupa: The Jenrick Group: We are recruiting for an e...

The Jenrick Group: Night Shift Operations Manager

£43500 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Night Shift Operatio...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'